The War In Three Acts

On the bookshelf across from where I am sitting are two trilogies that both try to tell the story of the entire war.  One is well known these days – Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, published in the mid-Twentieth Century.  The other was well know in its day but is less so now —  Benson Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War, first published in the late 1860s.  In a chronologically reversed tribute, Lossing has been referred to as “The Shelby Foote of the 19th century”.  But that is where the similarity ends.  Structurally and stylistically the two works are quite different.

A big difference is the way that the two authors segment the war.  Lossing devotes considerable space to the buildup to war during 1860 and early 1861.  His first volume opens with the presidential conventions in 1860 and only goes as far as the battle of Bull Run in July 1861.  For Foote, the focus is more on the military action and  he moves  more quickly through the early part of the war.  His first volume ends in fall of 1862, over a year later than Lossing.  Both then put about a year and a half into their second book such that Foote starts the third book in spring 1864 whereas Lossing is only as far as mid 1863.

I appreciate Lossing’s attention to political developments and the way he highlights characters and actions often marginalized in more modern works.  But the result is that too much is crammed into his third volume.  I think Foote had the right idea about how to segment the war.   To me late 1862 is a pivotal  time. There was a shift in US leadership as major leaders of the early war faded.   McClellan and Buell were relieved of command, Butler was replaced, Pope and McDowell were sent packing, Curtis sidelined himself, and while Halleck continued as General-in-Chief Lincoln had become aware of his limitations.  Late 1862 was also when the mid-term congressional elections occurred and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the politics of the war.  Likewise, I feel that the spring of 1864 is a good break between the middle and final thirds of war. Grant took control of the situation in Virginia and Sherman in Georgia, setting up the campaigns that would bring the war to an end.

How would you segment the war for storytelling purposes?


4 responses to “The War In Three Acts”

  1. LetUsHavePeace Avatar

    The 1862 Congressional elections did not change the politics of the war in any significant way. In the largest state – New York – the Republicans lost the governorship; in the most democratic part of the Federal government, the House of Representatives, the Democrats gained 25 seats. McPherson and others have done their best to argue that there was a political majority in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation; but the only evidence they can offer is that the Republicans gained control of the Senate. Given the fact that the Southern Democrats in the Senate could not run for re-election and state government control by the Republicans in Michigan, California and Iowa allowed the Republicans to gain 6 Senate seats without any direct popular elections, the evidence at best supports a verdict of “not proven”. The opening act of the war deserves the importance that Lossing gave it; the events up to the firing on Sumter are the opening act. The middle act ends not in 1862 but in the summer of 1863, with Vicksburg and Gettysburg – the 2 battles that proved, beyond any doubt, that the Federals meant to fight things clear to the end. The last 2 years are the war of destruction – of lives and property and liberty – from which the country is still trying to fully recover, up to this very day.

    1. Ned B. Avatar
      Ned B.

      Persuasive comments in favor of Lossing’s way of framing the war. Thanks.

  2. Ben Avatar

    Splitting the war into three segments seems arbitrary. If we’re going to insist on a three act structure, however, why stop there? If we’re telling a narrative, let’s go ahead and pick a protaginist: either the Union or the Confederacy. The choice of protaginist can then guide the segmentation.

  3. LetUsHavePeace Avatar

    The Civil War/War Between the States succeeds as drama precisely because it follows Aristotle’s rule: even the villains are the heroes of their own stories.

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